Sappho, Ono no Komachi, Louise Labé, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Charlotte Mew — these are among the pre-20th-century female poets that all the world honors and reveres. By contrast, in “The Mirror of My Heart: A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry by Women” some of the most striking writers are essentially anonymous, being identified only as the daughter, wife, sister or mother of a king, courtier or merchant.
Is this a reflection, then, of the secondary status of women in ancient Iran, Afghanistan and western India, the principal areas where Persian has been spoken and written? In part, yes. But as Dick Davis reminds us in his book’s 60-page introduction, until recently women in that part of the world were considered strictly amateur, not professional, poets. Unlike a Hafez or Rumi, they weren’t involved in what our own contemporaries call po-biz. They didn’t live off the largesse of royal patrons or recite their work in bazaars. These educated wives and daughters read and composed poetry because it enriched their lives.
In general, the lyrics chosen by Davis, especially those from before the 1800s, are short, intimate and usually addressed to one person or a small circle of friends. In some cases, the poems express what seem to be truly personal cris de coeur, even if the imagery employed — gardens, the breeze at dawn, tears, wine and roses — is as conventional as that found in a Petrarchan sonnet or a Japanese haiku. As with so much confessional poetry, old or new, the eternal themes are love, longing, loneliness and loss.
One might add lasciviousness to that list of L’s. During several easygoing regimes, the court women — especially in the 16th century — could be astonishingly forthright, even bawdy. Their poems recall nights of adulterous passion, hint at same-sex desires, complain about the impotence of elderly husbands. Their words leave nothing veiled, as in this four-line outburst by the 15th-century Mehri, “an answer to an old man who proposed himself as her lover”:
Good God, what do you think my flesh is? What?
It’s handsome men I fancy, young and hot!
If I liked weak old men, why would I whine
About the one that I’ve already got?
A daughter of the Moghul emperor Babur, Golbadan Beigum (1523-1603) sounds as cheekily epigrammatic as Dorothy Parker: Be sure that girls who treat their lovers badly/ Are apt to find their lives will end up sadly.
Then there’s the 14th-century princess Jahan Malek Khatun, whose work Davis previously introduced in “Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz”:
I swore I’d never look at him again,
I’d be a Sufi, deaf to sin’s temptations;
I saw my nature wouldn’t stand for it—
From now on I renounce renunciations.
At several times, alas, greater Persia reverted to extreme Islamic austerity. Girls were then kept illiterate, married off at 15 to men three times their age and forced to hide their faces in public. Eventually, regime change led to the lessening of some restrictions, so that the early 19th-century poet Mastureh Kurdi can brassily write: “I’d give the world’s wealth for a drop of wine —/ I’d give both worlds, and throw in Judgment Day.” A poem by one of her contemporaries named Gowhar spins variations on the leitmotif phrase “last night.” It ends: “Gowhar, he gave your heart’s desire and took your soul—/ My love can’t say the bargain wasn’t fair, last night.” Yet another poet of the same period, Gowhar Beigum Azerbaijani, neatly summarizes her impressive erotic power: “One glance of mine will make two hundred men/ Whom death has taken, come to life again.”
By the 20th century, Iranian women — like women in the West — began to demand greater freedoms. Called her country’s first feminist poet, Alam Taj lived from 1883 to 1947 and composed her poems in secret; they were only discovered after her death. In one, she describes her loathed husband’s whiskers against her skin as feeling, in a highly surrealistic image, “like a tiny knife inserted in an eyeball’s pupil.”
Today, some of Iran’s more outspoken poets have gone into exile. Others, like Simin Behbahani, have been prevented from leaving the country. Twice nominated for the Nobel Prize, Behbahani — who died in 2014 — is here represented by six poems, starting with “Prostitute’s Song,” which details the horrors of that life. Attention-grabbing in a different way, Sara Ardehali launches “A Full-Time Position” with distinctly comic understatement: “No man wants/ to fall in love with a woman/ Who works in a circus.” The very last poet represented, Fatemeh Ekhtesari, was born in 1986 and she’s anything but modest and retiring:
I was knocked up and made pregnant
By a right-wing political bore
When the dust had settled he’d left me
As if I were a whore.
As well as being an admired poet in his own right, Dick Davis is widely regarded as our leading translator from Persian. Every page of “The Mirror of My Heart” shows why, whether through the limpid beauty of the poems themselves or in his command of a diction that ranges from the elegant to the slangy. One poem, by the late 18th-century Maluli, slowly drains all the country-and-western heartbreak from the refrain, “What’s it to you?” When Kasm’i (1883-1923) laments the subordinate condition of women in Iran and her country’s subjection to the West, Davis translates: “Iran is famous in the world for her nobility — / It’s this that makes me think, and gives me hope, and troubles me.” That couplet may seem artlessly catchy, but its cadence must have taken immense patience to get just right.
In every respect, “The Mirror of My Heart” is outstanding. Reading it one discovers a whole tradition of love poetry, epigram and elegy, movingly brought into English and then beautifully printed and bound by Washington’s own Mage Publishers. Most important now, this anthology reminds us how much we all share the same joys, the same sorrows.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
At 5 p.m. Thursday, Dick Davis will speak at Georgetown University, the Riggs Library 3700 O St. NW. At 2 p.m. Saturday, Davis will speak at the Freer Gallery of Art, Meyer Auditorium, 1050 Independence Ave. SW.
A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry by Women
Edited and translated by Dick Davis
Mage Publishers. 344 pp. $45
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